Choosing your field of study might be a fairly straightforward affair; on the other hand, you may need to learn more about different areas of study to find the best fit for your interests and career goals. For example, you might find your interests compatible with programs in history as well as folklore, or archaeology as well as art history. Perhaps you know you want to be a therapist, but aren't sure if you want to pursue graduate study in social work, psychology, or marriage/family therapy. Sometimes a student may begin with an interest in medicine and find the best fit in a related field such as neuroscience or health care policy.
By the time you apply to graduate school, you will need to have a clear idea of why you are pursuing advanced study in your particular field and be able to articulate how it fits with your career goals. So, how do you go about finding out more about fields or study and confirming that one is the best choice for you?
- Talk to people working in the field. Faculty and alumni are excellent resources. Speak with a wide range of people and consider multiple perspectives.
- Visit Career Services. We have a good deal of useful information which can be found both on our website and in our library, and we disseminate even more information through our e-mail listserves. In addition, you can (and should!) make an appointment to see an advisor to talk about your plans and options.
- Take advanced courses and conduct independent research in the field.
- Work or volunteer in the field. Experience outside the classroom may be essential to building your graduate school application and almost always helps clarify your interests and goals.
The type of degree you pursue usually depends upon your career goals. Research your options with attention to the requirements, costs, and benefits of a given degree. Talking to people in your field and researching programs will help clarify your options. Some types of degree programs are:
Doctoral programs prepare students for a career in research, often in academia. Doctoral students may work towards a variety of degrees including the PhD, EdD, PsyD, or DSW. While the idea of a doctoral program may be intellectually exciting, it is not something to enter into lightly. To complete a program successfully, you must have a serious passion for your area of study, and a firm commitment to tackling great academic demands while receiving limited financial compensation.
In a doctoral program, you generally take two to four years of coursework, beginning with foundation classes that train you in theory or research methods, and ending with upper-level seminars on specific topics. The latter often produce seminar papers that are publishable or provide you with research topics that may be a source for your dissertation. In addition to coursework, you undergo a series of oral and written examinations: master's--(comprehensive) level and then doctoral--(qualifying) level exams.
The capstone of the process is your dissertation. Writing a doctoral thesis, depending on the field, can take anywhere from a few years to five or more, especially in the humanities. In addition to working on all your coursework and the dissertation, you may well spend time as a teaching assistant in order to fund your degree and gain teaching experience.
Academic Master's Programs
An academic master's degree provides greater depth of study in an academic subject you might have taken as an undergraduate, such as sociology, biology or English. It does not automatically translate into a specific job. Rather, its purpose is to deepen your knowledge of a field. While it is generally quite possible to enroll directly in a Ph.D. program with an undergraduate degree, an academic master's degree can serve as a step towards further study as a Ph.D. candidate.
In some technically oriented fields--like computer science or engineering, or some social sciences--a master's degree provides you with sufficient technical or quantitative skills to enable you to pursue non-academic jobs after graduation. Master's programs in the humanities also develop useful skills, especially in archival research and writing, and sometimes these may be used in other settings--for example, museum education, high school teaching, or archival work. Finally, some people who get a master's degree in a particular discipline are motivated by a desire for intellectual enrichment or passion for the field. These are both valid reasons, but it is important to consider the cost of such programs and longer-term career goals.
Most master's programs are one to two years long. These are typically capped by a research thesis and/or a comprehensive examination that assesses how well you have learned the theories, information and methodologies of your discipline. Keep in mind that if you eventually wish to pursue a doctoral degree, it will be to your benefit to choose a Master's program that requires a thesis.
Professional Master's Programs
Professional Master's programs provide a theoretical framework and training in relevant skills necessary for specific careers. Typically, professional master's programs are one or two years in duration and several of the programs require that you have prior work experience in the field before applying. Some examples of professional master's programs are:
- Architecture/Urban Design
- Business Administration
- Criminology/Criminal Justice
- Public Administration
- Public Health
- Public Policy
- Social Work
- Urban/Regional Planning
These master's degrees are often essential for advancement to mid- or upper-level positions in their respective fields.
Once you have decided on the kind of degree you want, you must choose the programs to which you will apply. Identify several, keeping in mind both your own preferences and the likelihood of admission. Apply to programs that are good fit for your interests and goals and represent a realistic range of schools. The Career Services Library contains resources that can help you identify a wide range of programs. Helpful places to search online are:
Seek information from many programs, and don't limit yourself to only those with which you are familiar. As you learn about schools, you must weigh many factors. Consider the following list as a starting point:
What career paths do graduates typically follow?
- What are their placement statistics?
- Do they concentrate in a few geographic areas, or take jobs nationwide?
Do faculty and administrators show interest in their graduates' success?
- What placement assistance is offered?
- Do faculty hire students as reserach assistants?
What research opportunities are offered?
- How much independence will you have in your research?
- What is the reputation of the research facility and/or faculty?
- Are there potential mentors who share your research interests?
- Is state-of-the-art equipment available?
What is the balance between strict curricular requirements and electives?
- Will you be able to take courses outside of your department?
- Will the courses which interest you be offered in the year you will need to take them?
What is the educational approach?
- Theoretical or applied?
- Case-method or quantitative analysis?
- Memorization or problem-based?
- Lectures or seminars?
What internship, fellowship and clinical opportunities are offered?
What is the faculty/student ratio?
What is the reputation of the program within your field?
What financial aid is available?
- Will each school offer a comparable aid package?
- What percentage of students are funded?
What happens to students after they enroll?
- How big is the first year class?
- What is the attrition rate?
- What percentage of matriculants graduate?
- How many years do most students spend in the program?
Where is the school located?
- What is the cost of living?
- What are the housing options?
- Will you need a car?
- Do you like the area?
- Do most graduates work in the region, or nationwide?
Are there part-time or evening programs?
Can you defer admission?